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How Improving Patient Literacy Positively Impacts Mental Health

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Mental health is “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”
—The World Health Organization

As we recently celebrated World Mental Health Day, let us first recognize and appreciate the World Health Organization (WHO) for taking the initiative to explore and discuss the importance of mental health. From schizophrenia to depression and even PTSD, mental health spans a plethora of human emotions not only affecting the psyche but also the physical body. WHO has gone a step further by recognizing mental health as an international issue, creating the 2013–2020 Mental Health Action Plan.

The action plan “… calls for changes. It calls for a change in the attitudes that perpetuate stigma and discrimination that have isolated people since ancient times, and it calls for an expansion of services in order to promote greater efficiency in the use of resources.”

As WHO along with mental health advocates and other health professionals work together to create a succinct way to combat mental health conditions, reading has proven to be one modality of healing which has a positive impact on mental health and general well-being. Throughout my time as director of a literacy-focused, hospital based nonprofit organization, I have come to recognize the significant impact reading has on patients.

To name a few ways, the act of reading:

  • Acts as a stress reliever and relaxes the mind and body (i.e. slowing down the heart rate and easing tension within muscles);
  • Provides a temporary escape from the hustle and bustle of real life; a “mental vacation” in a safe, easy environment;
  • May reduce memory decline and potentially decrease the chance of developing Alzheimer’s dementia;
  • Improves rest and sleep quality (when not reading on a phone or tablet screen); and
  • Improves relationships and social skills through the learning of social cues, empathy, and various characteristics and personalities of individuals.

Unfortunately, there has not been an elaborate amount of research on the negative impact poor literacy has on mental health. However it is hard to think that deficiencies in reading and writing would not have an affect on the diagnosis, treatment, and management of a multitude of mental health issues.

What we do know is poor literacy skills or functionality may hinder individuals in seeking mental health services and using these services effectively. The stigma of not being able to read, coupled with the general public’s stigma against mental health may be a roadblock to pursuing help. Personal shame, embarrassment, and guilt may also cause people to not look for support.

If someone does seek out and find the appropriate service, the extent to which they can be helped may also be hindered due to literacy. For example, a patient with a low reading level may not fill out a PHQ-9 Depression Questionnaire to the best of their ability, making it difficult to evaluate if certain therapies are benefiting them. Also, literacy is critical in taking prescription medication correctly, particularly medications like mood stabilizers and antipsychotics, many of which have significant side effects. Literacy may also affect certain treatment modalities such as journaling, creating mood and vision boards, reading educational pamphlets, or researching symptoms and side effects.

Simple ways to help patients who may have such difficulties is to first ensure that the patient states which language they are most comfortable reading. Often times someone whose first language is not English may be able to speak English but have difficulty with reading English. Providing written information in their native language may be the bridge necessary to provide them with the help they need. Also, knowing what adult literacy programs are available within your community (often times found in libraries and junior colleges) and giving that information out can help alleviate adult illiteracy.

It is important to recognize how literacy ties together a person’s mental, physical, emotional, and social state. Multiple factors contribute to the development of mental health issues. As we strive for a better understanding on how to treat and manage these conditions, health care professionals (including myself) need to use reading and writing as a positive way to alleviate those who seek support from us.

Dr. Akua Ampadu is a hospitalist physician passionate about quality inpatient and outpatient adult care. As a survivor of work and life related burnout, she aims to provide tools necessary to live a life focused on self-care and self-advocacy. She also recognizes the importance of reading to one’s health and created the Healing Words Foundation in 2016, a literacy-based charity focused on providing books to pediatric wards and outpatient clinics. She is active on social media.

Dr. Ampadu is a 2018–2019 Doximity Author.

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